The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archive: 08/2011 - Page 1
With the soon-to-be-dedicated Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial along Washington, DC’s Tidal Basin, and the scheduled opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2015, some of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dreams are becoming a reality. Let’s take a look back at the impact of this influential man and his ideas on the Smithsonian.
Smithsonian staff members, working in in the heart of the nation’s capital, witnessed the civil rights demonstrations of the 1960s, and were inspired by King’s vision for a more just America. In 1967, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) planned a “Poor People’s Campaign” to fight racism and poverty (see records about the "Porr People's Campaign from the Smithsonian). After King’s assassination in April of 1968, the SCLC decided to go forward with the campaign, and soon a village of tents and make-shift shelters, called Resurrection City, was set up near the Lincoln Memorial to house those people who came to Washington to demonstrate for social justice.
As Dr. Keith Melder, then curator of political history in the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History), recalled in an oral history interview conducted in 2006, “It rained and rained and rained. It rained, I think, almost every day for something like forty days. It rained, and the landscapes turned into mud and mire. And these poor people, they lived out here in the Resurrection City shelters. Somebody had designed a cheap shelter, not tents exactly, but plywood, tent-like structures, and they bedded down in these things, and they never got dry.” Smithsonian museums—their restrooms and restaurants, as well as exhibits—helped shelter Resurrection City residents from the wet spring and poor conditions. While there was debate within the Institution as to how the Smithsonian should respond—limit access to ensure no damage to the museums, or welcome a new audience—Secretary S. Dillon Ripley insisted that the doors stay open and trained the guard force to deal with demonstrators calmly, avoiding confrontation.
When Resurrection City residents were evicted from the outdoor site in mid-June by the National Park Service, Melder remembered, “We were able to salvage pieces of several of the shelters. I can remember going down. We got a Smithsonian truck, and I managed to corral some laborers from the labor force, and we simply went down and loaded the truck up with pieces of some of these shelters, and that was our collections for the Resurrection City. And those turned out to be valuable. They’re still occasionally displayed, and they’ve been on exhibition a number of times, and I don’t think anyone else preserved any residue of Resurrection City.”
Inspired by King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, Melder began to collect King memorabilia after his assasination and prepared a small display at the Smithsonian. But not all visitors accepted the new materials; Melder noted, “…some unknown person, visitor, came in and torched one of the objects on exhibition, a memorial banner to Martin Luther King, a handmade banner, and apparently lit a match to it. We didn’t have the kind of protection and security that we would do today, and they burned it up. I was . . . well, we were all, stunned….”
Melder’s reminiscences remind us of the struggles of that era and the deep emotions on both sides of the racial divide. At the same time, the Institution itself was grappling with how to become a more representative and diverse place, appointing its first African American museum director, John Kinard of Anacostia Neighborhood Museum in 1967; first African American curator, Louis Purnell of National Air and Space Museum in 1968; first African American member of the Board of Regents, A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., in 1971; and first African American Assistant Secretary, Julian Euell in 1974. As we pause to honor Dr. King, it is important to acknowledge and think about the ways his vision changed the Smithsonian, as well as the nation.
Savage Beauty, the posthumous and retrospective exhibition of women’s fashions designed by Alexander McQueen (1969–2010) at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art closed early in August. The record breaking event—an official attendance count of 661,509 visitors made it the eighth biggest show in the museum’s history—featured approximately one hundred ensembles drawn, primarily, from the Alexander McQueen Archive in London. Over the years, McQueen’s collections looked back to the exaggerated silhouettes of looks from 1860s, 1880s, 1890s, and 1950s, which he then re-imagined and reworked in startling and original ways. “What attracted me to Alexander,’ said his patron and muse Isabella Blow, “was the way he takes ideas from the past and sabotages them with his cut to make them thoroughly new and in the context of today.”
The fact that clothing designers continually mine and recycle the past for inspiration is no secret in the fashion world. Some popular colors, styles, and cuts of clothing disappear once they’ve outlived their novelty or the taste of the times. But others merely go into hibernation, waiting to be resurrected by the designers, stylists, or market-defining retailers who troll the image archives of the past to come up with the next “new” thing. In the years before the Internet shortened time-consuming searches for back issues of fashion magazines to the time it took to click a mouse—and before skyrocketing rents also drove him to close his labyrinthian basement-level East Village store front in New York City in 2007—Mike Gallagher, for example, had become a fashion world celebrity by amassing an astonishing historical archive of fashion magazines, a resource that was routinely mined by big name fashion designers, photographers, stylists, makeup and hair artists, and creative directors.
For all the emphasis and talk on Project Runway about clothes that are “fashion forward,” an awful lot of energy is invested by industry insiders and their researchers in looking backwards in time. And so I’ve been interested to note, in the last couple of weeks, of the growing number of posts online, at sites like Fashionista and the LA Times’ blog, Jacket Copy, that picked up on a rumor thatVogue magazine might, by the end of the year, announce that its archive of issues dating back to 1892 issue was going online. Given that Vogue’s parent company, Condé Nast, recently made the archives of another of its tony properties, The New Yorker, available to subscribers and/or for a fee, style- and hemline-watchers may soon be able to engage in some time travelling, too, and maybe for Christmas.
In the institutional archivists' world, there is constant discussion about what we save and why we save it. While there are many reasons why this is such a pointed concern, one of the main factors institutions consider when deciding what to collect is the relevance of a collection's contents to the institution's mission. That being said, depending on the type of institution one works for, archivists may never get to meet the creators or personally know any of the people highlighted in their collections, especially since collections often come to institutional archives decades after they were created. However, because the Smithsonian Institutional Archives is proactive in working with current staff to transfer records, I was fortunate enough to meet some of the people who make history at the Smithsonian during my summer internship at the Archives.
In my first week of interning at the Archives, I assisted Assistant Archivist Jennifer Wright with a records transfer from the National Zoological Park. My first thought was, "What in the world are we going to pick up at the zoo?" I was pleasantly surprised to meet Lou Ann Dietz and James M. Dietz, waiting for us on a small loading dock tucked into a hidden zoo entrance. Sitting on that loading dock were boxes—dozens of them—filled with records they had maintained documenting the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program. The Dietz's worked with this National Zoological Park program, conducting field research, training locals to record observations, and spearheading educational campaigns in an effort to save the golden lion tamarin, a small endangered monkey native to Brazil.
In 1992, the Dietz's were founding members of the Associação Mico-Leão Dourado (AMLD), a Brazilian non-profit which took on most of the oversight of the conservation efforts. Today Lou Ann and Jim Dietz continue their efforts by serving as President and Vice-President, respectively, of Save the Golden Lion Tamarin, a United States non-profit that supports and promotes the AMLD. The bulk of the records they were transferring consisted of handwritten field observations, with other records documenting the oversight of the program and its activities. The Dietz's no longer actively needed these records for their work and were sending them to the Archives where they would be properly preserved and where other researchers could benefit from them. The couple explained how they had organized their records and the subject matter of the collection. We quickly formed an assembly line and loaded up the van with the boxes.
A week later I was tasked with processing a related collection of records documenting the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program (Accession #11-217, National Zoological Park, Dept. of Zoological Research, Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program Records, c. 1970-2002), which had been transferred to the Archives in the fall of 2010. According to the non-profit Save the Golden Lion Tamarin: "The Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program was created in 1983 to rescue, protect, and conserve the golden lion tamarins in their natural habitat." As I rehoused these papers I realized that the Dietz’s formed an integral part of the team implementing the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program. Standing on the loading dock that day, the Dietz’s struck me as compassionate and determined people; reading through this collection only solidified my thoughts.
Though our interaction was brief, our parting triggered something in me. The Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program means a great deal to the Dietz’s, and they were emotional as they passed their many years of hard work on to the Archives. I experienced a connection with the Dietz’s as the records passed from their hands to ours, and their tear-filled eyes said goodbye. This experience has shown me something that the books and lectures of my archival education are hard-pressed to describe: the connection between people and the physical history they create. I have come to see the records the Archives collects as representing people. These records illustrate the lives and mark the existence of people working in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution, and they legitimize discoveries and work of researchers and other staff through their existence. Now every researcher I see in the reading room of the Archives makes me a little jealous. I wonder—who do they get to meet today?
Read about the work of Devra Kleiman (1942-2010) who headed the Golden Lion Tamarin Conservation Program in these previous blog posts.
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